• Maisie Loh

Getting to Know Mallet Instruments


You might be interested in learning mallet instruments, which are part of the family of percussion. But you are unfamiliar with the percussion family of instruments. Mallet instruments are found from chamber music to the orchestral and ABBA! Remember the start of ABBA’s hit ‘Mama Mia’? It begins with the marimba. We are going to explore and get to know more about mallet instruments, and the marimba is in the spotlight in this post.


What is a Marimba?


The marimba gets less attention than the more popular xylophone but both instruments look almost identical. In fact, the marimba is one of the many African names for the xylophone. Both are wooden mallet instruments. But they differ in terms of physical construction, bar material (rosewood, padauk, or synthetic), and the type of mallet used. But the marimba is the largest in the mallet family. It also covers over five octaves starting at C, producing a full dark sound. The xylophone on the other hand starts at F on a higher range with a brighter and more piercing sound.


The marimba is often found in the percussion section of an orchestra or in a percussion ensemble, though it is also suitable to be performed solo. Since the 1980s, it has increasingly been used in orchestral works.


Different Types of Marimba


Marimba comes in different forms as there is no standard in terms of size and shape across the world. However, there are two marimbas used more frequently. The chromatic marimba is one of the most popularly used in the world. It is used in percussion ensembles in philharmonic and symphonic orchestras. The chromatic marimba is so named because it features all twelve notes of western music notations, separating it from the ‘simple’ marimba which can only be tuned into one key at a time.


The other popular marimba is the concert marimba. The concert marimba, unlike the chromatic marimba which is the domain of a single percussionist, is played by two or more percussionists simultaneously.




The Uniqueness of the Marimba


Although the marimba is less popular and known as the xylophone, it can be used and has been added to any genre of music, from pop, rock, classical to world music. Not only in music, but the default ringtone in your iPhone is played with a marimba! The marimba is after all not that ‘rare’ an instrument and is more common than you think. It has a wide range with its lowest note the same as the cello’s. Its wood mallet combined with its metal resonator produces a unique tone.


Playing the Marimba


Playing the marimba is not that easy as it requires you to play four, six, or even right mallets at one time. If you are keen to be a part of the percussion section of an orchestra, you will need to learn to play mallet instruments and not just the drum or cymbals.


Depending on where you learn to play the marimba, and how many mallets you have to use at a given time, you will be choosing a different grip to hold the mallets. These tend to be known as the Burton grip, the cross grip, and the Musser-Stevens grip. Which one you use will depend on whether you are intending to play a lot of chords, a lot of melodic lines, or whether you have to make lots of leaps between large intervals.


Start with A Simpler Mallet Instrument


While learning and playing the marimba can be daunting, it is not impossible. You can always start with the xylophone. The xylophone, as well as the piano, are arranged in the same way as the marimba. They are easier to navigate than the marimba and also more straightforward.


Ritmo Music studio offers music lessons with the xylophone if your child is an inspiring percussionist. It is also suitable for adults and seniors looking to explore their interest in percussion music.


We are launching our “Mallet Starter Series” this coming weekend on 20th Feb 2021!

In this 8-lesson mallet series, get to learn how to play your ‘xylophone’ the proper way; with the correct techniques and posture, learn about note reading and play along to some familiar songs with our youtube lessons!


Head on to our youtube link to find out more: https://youtu.be/g1Gihpf1z7U


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